What follows is a transcript of the live chat with Don Winslow, author of Savages, a book that I think is the literary equivalent of narcotic stimulants.
We’ll start with a few questions from me:
Sarah Weinman: – So first I wanted to talk a bit about Savages opening chapter (or opening line) and, at the risk of quoting myself – always dangerous – my sense was that “If you cackle out loud, you may proceed to Chapter 2. If not, you’re not Savages ideal reader, and it’s no great loss.” So was “fuck you” always the way the book started? Or did you have to pare things down, hack away at it, before that phrase became the book’s opener?
Don Winslow: First, Sarah, thank you for all the very kind words about the book. As a matter of fact, ‘fuck you’ was the first sentence I wrote, even before I had characters or a plot. I guess I was just in a bad mood. But then I got thinking, ‘What about it?’ Who says it? Who thinks it? The next thing I knew a 20-something Orange County woman named O was describing her friend Chon, and it went from there.
Sarah Weinman: Savages has quite the high-wire act in that it starts out as kind of high comedy – two guys and a girl, partying in the USA, so to speak, a threat nobody really takes seriously – and then things get Very Serious and it turns out that light-hearted beginning is basically a big lie. How did you make sure not to have too much comedy or too much tragedy, so that the tension between the two keeps the reader going until the illusion basically gets ripped away?
Don Winslow: Well, I like the high-wire, maybe because I’m so afraid of heights. I think life itself constantly flips between tragedy and comedy, and often very quickly and without warning, so I just wrote it that way. Frankly, if I thought something was funny, I put it in and took the chance. But as the story moved inexorably toward tragedy, the events argued against going for any laughs. Sometimes I think of story structure as a wave – it builds and builds and can do some funky things, but when it breaks, it breaks – when it crashes it crashes.
Harry Hunskicker: No memory, U wake up in a motel w/ pile of $ & dead hooker, police at the door. What fic. charac. do you call?
Don Winslow: [laughs] I call Philip Marlow, no question. But if you really are in this situation, Harry, you might want to consult a good lawyer.
Sarah Weinman: There’s a one-page narrative monologue near the end of the book that I think really delivers Savages knockout punch to American material culture and to the way boomer selfishness has not only failed subsequent generations but the country as a whole. Which is to say, you don’t mince words, and it seemed like the whole book was written from a place of frustration, if not anger, at how we ply ourselves with consumerism and are wholly ill-equipped for a world where such values don’t count.
Don Winslow: Yeah, I was pretty angry when I was writing this book. Hell, I’m pretty angry now. The widening economic disparity, the yapping, quarreling politicians who won’t address the real problems, the obsession with celebrity and cheap fame, and the endless consumerism that serves as a narcotic – really our worst drug problem. I was especially pissed off at the right-wing media bullies and congressional cretins who feel entitled to say anything, but then go running to mommy if anyone hits back. So I thought I’d take a rhetorical baseball bat to them.
Duane Swierczynski: Do you research before, during, or after writing a novel — like, say, Savages, which is full of tons of sharp insights into drug cartels, grades of marijuana, etc.? (Then again, it is entirely possible you’ve run a cartel at some point, and research is a moot point.)
Don Winslow: Thanks Duane! You know, I do a fair amount of research before and during. And so, it’s funny because you don’t know what you don’t know until you have to write it and so you think you’ve done enough research and then you’re writing and you realize there’s something you don’t know.
Afterwards, I try not to, I try to forget it and move on to the next book
Kathy Roberts: What’s on your iPod?
Don Winslow: Steve Earle, Robert Earle Keen, lots of Springsteen, James McMurtry (like in Larry McMurty’s son), Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and a surf reggae band called Common Sense out of Laguna Beach
Cort McMeel: For me, The Power of the Dog was a seminal work of fiction. You wove an extremely complex plot with a lot of uninventable details of the Mexican drug trade while painting an in depth portrait of a whole gallery of characters. My two questions:
1) In your research did you interview any actual DEA agents, drug cartel members, Mexican police and/or prostitutes? 2) If so, who was the most interesting to you personally, and why?
Don Winslow: Thanks for the kind words, Cort. I have to be really careful about this. Suffice to say that I did a lot of research, including talking to people. Beyond that, I think I’d better be discreet. You know, they’re all interesting in their own ways.
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